In Wednesday’s therapy session, E observes that my shame feels something sticky. It’s a thin, transparent layer all over me. I peel part of it back, but I can’t get rid of it; it sticks to my fingers to gets caught in my hair. It won’t let me go.
I’m surprised, too, by its tenaciousness. I’ll think, “oh, we worked on that in therapy, and I’m okay with it now.” And then it all comes up all over again. Maybe that’s how it goes after repeated sexually abusive experiences: the shame becomes so deeply embedded that it can no longer be separated from the self.
And yet, if I truly believed that, I wouldn’t keep working on it in therapy, would I? (No, I wouldn’t, because therapy costs add up, I am unemployed, and my frugal upbringing won’t allow me to burn up hundred dollar bills just for the hell of it.) Ultimately, I believe it is possible to heal shame. Not easy, but possible.
Perhaps the answer is not to peel off the layers and layers of shame and throw them into the trash. Perhaps what I need to do is transform those layers into something else.
One thing I have learned in recent months is that I can’t rid myself of a painful emotion by pushing it away. Instead, I need to accept it, to feel it. I never understood what that meant in concrete terms until I experienced some guided meditations on working with difficult emotions.
In those meditations, we are encouraged to envision our difficult emotion–in my case, Shame–with a physical presence. It can be a giant gray blob or a porcupine with horns or a dragon, whatever feels right in that moment. We imagine ourselves sitting on a park bench or a porch swing. The sun in shining, and we are safe and comfortable. We invite Shame (or Grief or Anger or Anxiety; pick your pain) to sit beside us on the bench. There we sit, quietly, the two of us soaking up the sun. Nothing has to happen. Or maybe we decide to put our arm around Shame, despite her hot, prickly surface. Maybe we tell her, “It’s going to be all right.”
That’s it. That’s all. We let her be there. We don’t argue with her or scold her or tell her to fuck the hell off.
I’ve learned other things as well. Shame has a right to be there, as all emotions do. But Shame doesn’t get to run the show. She’s not the boss. Instead, my wisest self, the wise woman who is my true core self, she’s the boss. And because she is wise and has my best interests at heart, she sets some boundaries.
“Shame,” she says. “You are so welcome to sit out here on the bench and enjoy the sun with us. We’re even willing to listen, for a while, to your concerns. But if you start throwing one of your temper tantrums, we’re going to have to send you to the time-out room until you can calm down.”
So here’s something else I’ve come to understand about Shame. The promise of being truly listened to is very appealing to her. After all, she’s been told to shut up and go away a lot of the time. So when I invite her to spend ten minutes telling me about her thoughts and beliefs about sexuality, our tender topic of the moment, she jumps on the opportunity. She writes frenetically, filling a page.
When the timer goes off signalling her 10 minutes are up, I channel the wisdom of the wise woman and ask Shame to stop. “Thank you for telling me what you honestly think. I promise to consider these ideas seriously, but later. You know it can be harmful if I spend too much time on these ideas all at once. I’m going to put them aside for today and come back to them.”
Shame seems satisfied, for the moment. She returns to the bench in the sun. Meanwhile, I take the paper she’s written, fold it up, and tuck it into the bottom of my purse.
It’s not enough to do this once or twice. I don’t know how many times I will need to revisit some version of this, welcoming Shame in and listening to her for a while. I may get sick of it sometimes. E may get sick of hearing about her sometimes. But Shame’s a persistent and tricky creature–“sticky”–and she has a lot to say. I’d better make sure that bench is a comfortable one.
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Side note: This week my blog turns two years old. This little space I carved out for some anonymous writing about my depression and therapy experiences has turned into a place for tremendous learning and rich support from readers from around the world. I never would have imagined how valuable it would be in my emotional growth. Special thanks to those who read and comment regularly. It means a lot to me.